When 70 becomes meaningless

Alex Cartwright. Formalized the first rules of baseball – nine innings, nine players, etc.
Candy Cummings. Inventor of the curve ball.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Restored confidence in baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
Henry Chadwick. Inventor of the box score.

Mark McGwire. Revived a league still reeling from the residual hatred that a strike-shortened season brings.

Two straight years of ballotship. Two straight years of coming up short by a wide margin. Two years of wondering if writers were ever going to let up, whether they were going to cast the blame of the steroid era elsewhere.

Two years of being the canary, gasping for air before the rest of the Steroid Superstars had a chance to try the ballot, suffocating from a mass of allegations. A warning to those trailing behind. “There’s no room in here for suspicion, guys. Hold back.”

I don’t blame them. Even though it has never been proven, the evidence is stacked heavily against McGwire – and even more so, Sosa, Palmiero, Bonds. There’s no trust, no confidence whatsoever. He looks like a cheater. Everything he’s said makes him sound like a cheater. He’s skirting the issue, and the voters are skirting his Hall of Fame vote.

McGwire at 70It wasn’t always like this. Mark McGwire was the most popular man in all of baseball. He revitalized the sport after years of idle doldrums – both he and Sammy Sosa – with an electrifying home run chase. He took a quickly dying sport and injected it with a new passion.

No pun intended.

This is the McGwire I remember. And this is the McGwire that’s closer to the truth. Steroids aside, McGwire was a power hitter from the womb. He was an average defender (though he did win a Gold Glove and had a career .993 fielding average at first base) and at times was a poor hitter (though he bat over .280 a few seasons and over .300 sparingly). But what do you expect? His job was to bring the power, just like Ozzie Smith’s job was to get on base safely and steal easy doubles.

McGwire deserves to be in the Hall based on his numbers alone. But we know that numbers don’t tell the whole story. And we know that for as much as he did to bring the sport back to life, he did just as much to bring it to its knees through the steroid scandal. For every peak, a valley opened up under him, swallowing him up in hearsay, rendering his career obsolete, sending him into the depths of the California suburbs, into a life of hiding.

I don’t want to apologize for the steroid issue. In fact, I actually don’t care, despite the hours I spent pouring over the Mitchell Report. Mark McGwire was a good person, for all I know. He broke a record. He juiced – but it wasn’t forbidden at that time. Gambling on baseball is. Throwing games is. Steroids are, now. But not then. So where the 1919 Black Sox and Pete Rose are banned, McGwire wasn’t.

It wasn’t forbidden. It was wrong. Looked down upon. But not forbidden.

Steroids in professional sports cast a wide net. It touches every sport, in every way – from the issue of sports stars as role models to the early deaths of known steroid abusers. It gives what some see as an unfair advantage – an unnatural stamina and an inappropriate power boost.

Mark McGwire may have been the recipient of both. His stats might deserve an asterisk, just as Barry Bonds’s might.

But we’re talking about the Hall of Fame. And for one summer in 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did all that they could to save baseball. For the length of one glorious race, two men drew the attention of nearly every American. Radios blared. Televisions caught every camera flash. Old fans turned back to the sport they had abandoned, and new fans reveled in the shine of a renewed rivalry. Baseball, so long declining as our national pastime, rose from the ashes like a phoenix.

Or maybe it was more like a Cardinal.

Keep Mark McGwire out of the Hall of Fame as a player. That’s fine with me. If his career seems tainted, if his Andro-lined locker and his non-admission of innocence are convincing enough, if the word of Jose Canseco over the silence of a crowded courtroom serve as all the words you need, keep him out. I’m not apologizing for Mark McGwire. If it’s true, he’s got what’s coming to him. If it’s not, he should have said more.

But don’t forget what else he gave to the game. A new life. A renewed interest. The attention of the entire world. A get out of jail free card, ironically enough. And if we’re talking about the true contributions to the game, that’s probably the biggest thing he could have offered over his career.

This was lovingly handwritten on January 10th, 2008